Letter from the President: Year in Review
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Letter from the President: Year in Review

Holiday greetings! It is my pleasure to wish you and your family the best of the season.

At The Scripps Research Institute, we have much to celebrate as we look back at our many accomplishments during the past year, the culmination of 50 years of the institute’s focus on biomedical science. For 2011, we applaud much seminal science, the award of the Nobel Prize and other honors to our faculty, the reaccreditation of our esteemed graduate program for 10 years, notable grants and gifts, and the approval of a new drug for lupus based on technology developed at the institute.

Breakthrough Science

The institute's scientific achievements were again remarkable in 2011. Here is a small sampling of the year’s work.

Professor Thomas Kodadek and colleagues developed a novel technology able to detect the presence of immune molecules specific to Alzheimer’s disease in patients’ blood samples. While still preliminary, the findings offer proof that this technology could be used in the development of biomarkers for a range of human diseases.

In work towards an AIDS vaccine, Ian Wilson, Hansen Professor of Structural Biology and a member of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at Scripps Research, Professor Dennis Burton, and colleagues uncovered the surprising details of how a powerful anti-HIV antibody, PGT 128, grabs hold of the virus. The findings highlight a major vulnerability of HIV.

Kim D. Janda, the Ely R. Callaway, Jr. Chair in Chemistry and a member of The Skaggs Institute, and colleagues developed a highly successful vaccine against a heroin high, proving its therapeutic potential in animal models. In other work, the Janda lab produced long-lasting anti-cocaine immunity in mice.

Led by advances in chemical synthesis, Associate Professor Glenn Micalizio, Associate Professor Laura Bohn, and colleagues discovered that the rare natural product conolidine has potent pain-killing properties.

Associate Professor Paul Kenny and colleagues identified a pathway in the brain that regulates an individual's vulnerability to the addictive properties of nicotine, suggesting a new target for anti-smoking therapies.

Dale Boger, the Richard and Alice Cramer Professor of Chemistry and member of the Skaggs Institute, and colleagues successfully reengineered an important antibiotic, vancomycin, to kill the deadliest antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Working from chemical compounds found in a Japanese plant and the application of ultraviolet light, a team led by K.C. Nicolaou, chair of the Department of Chemistry, Aline W. and L.S. Skaggs Professor of Chemical Biology, Darlene Shiley Chair in Chemistry, and member of the Skaggs Institute, created a unique library of dozens of synthetic compounds to test for biomedical potential. One of these has shown promise inhibiting replication of HIV particles and in fighting inflammation.

Professor Hugh Rosen, Professor Michael Oldstone, and colleagues found a novel mechanism by which certain viruses such as influenza trigger a type of immune reaction that can severely sicken or kill those infected.

Jerold Chun, a professor at Scripps Research and its Dorris Neuroscience Center, and colleagues found what may be a major cause of congenital hydrocephalus, one of the most common neurological disorders of childhood that produces mental debilitation and sometimes death in premature and newborn children.

Associate Professor Elizabeth Winzeler and colleagues discovered a family of chemical compounds that could lead to a new generation of antimalarial drugs capable of not only alleviating symptoms but also preventing the deadly disease.

The Nobel Prize and Other Honors

Every year, Scripps Research scientists at all levels are recognized with awards and honors.

This year, our long-time colleague Professor Bruce Beutler was named one of the winners of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his “discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity.” With the announcement, Beutler became the third member of our faculty to receive a Nobel Prize while at Scripps Research, following Professors K. Barry Sharpless in 2001 and Kurt Wütrich in 2002 (Gerald Edelman, chair of the Department of Neurobiology, received the prize in 1972 before joining our faculty). While Beutler’s future is at UT Southwestern Medical Center, we take much pride in celebrating his decade of accomplishments at Scripps Research and his many contributions to science.

In other awards and honors to the Scripps Research faculty in 2011, Associate Professor Marisa Roberto was knighted in her native Italy, presented with the Cavaliere degree of the Italian Republic's highest honor, the Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana (Order of Merit), in recognition of her research in the neurobiology of addictive behavior.

Nicolaou was elected to the American Philosophical Society, an organization of learned individuals founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin; election honors extraordinary accomplishments in all fields.

Professor Ben Shen was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a distinction recognizing scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.

Shen, Rosen, and Professor J. Lindsay Whitton were also elected fellows of the American Academy of Microbiology.

Professor Jin-Quan Yu won the Seventh Yoshimasa Hirata Memorial Lectureship, Gold Medal from Japan's Nagoya University, as well as the Mukaiyama Award of Japan’s Society of Synthetic Organic Chemistry. In addition, the American Chemical Society (ACS) named Yu an Arthur C. Cope Scholar, which recognizes excellence in organic chemistry.

In other ACS awards, Professor Chi-Huey Wong was selected to receive a top honor in organic chemistry, the Arthur C. Cope Award. Boger won the Portoghese Award from the ACS Division of Medicinal Chemistry. Jeffery W. Kelly, chair of Department of Molecular and Experimental Medicine, Lita Annenberg Hazen Professor of Chemistry, and chair of the board of the Skaggs Institute, won the ACS Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry (Kelly was also awarded the Protein Society’s Emil Thomas Kaiser Award). Associate Professor Matt Disney was named the David Y. Gin Award recipient by the ACS Carbohydrate Division. Julius Rebek, Jr., director of the Skaggs Institute, was awarded the William H. Nichols Medal by the ACS New York section.

Bohn was awarded the John J. Abel Award by American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, given each year to a single outstanding young investigator for his or her contributions to pharmacology.

And I could go on to name many other honors.

If individual awards were not enough, the quality of the institute’s science was underlined by its first-place ranking among institutions worldwide for impact in the field of chemistry by Thomson Reuter's, based on citations per paper in the last decade. A separate report based on Thomson Reuter's data listed two Scripps Research investigators—K. Barry Sharpless and Valery V. Fokin—among the top 10 chemists of the past decade; also in the top 60 were Scripps Research investigators Carlos F. Barbas III, M.G. Finn, and John R. Yates III.

In addition, Thomson Reuters data named Scripps Research as the world's sixth most influential in immunology.

Notable Grants

Despite the continuing difficult environment for research funding nationally, Scripps Research investigators were successful winning a variety of grants during the past year, a few of which are listed below.

The Kenny lab at Scripps Research and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine were awarded approximately $8.2 million over five years to develop novel compounds that could eventually become drug candidates for the treatment of tobacco addiction; $5.7 million of these funds will go to Scripps Research. A separate National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to the Bohn lab at and researchers at the University of Kansas will fund the development novel therapeutics for the treatment of addiction to multiple substances; $2.2 million of these funds will go to Scripps Research.

The NIH awarded $7.9 million to the Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI) of Scripps Research and Scripps Health with Sangamo BioSciences to conduct the nation's first-ever, heart-based "disease in a dish" research. The study will use induced pluripotent stem cells (non-embryonic stem cells created from mature cell types, such as skin cells) to recreate participants' own heart artery-lining cells in a dish, along with genome-editing technology aimed at potentially directing certain cells away from a disease state.

The Kodadek lab and its partners at the University of Miami and biotechnology company Opko were awarded $4.2 million from the NIH in a program to advance what the agency calls "bold and creative research" into Type I diabetes.

The Burris lab was awarded $3.17 million over four years to develop compounds that will counteract disruptions of the human biological clock—the circadian rhythm that regulates our patterns of activity and rest over a 24-hour daily cycle. Circadian rhythm disruptions have been associated with sleep disorders, as well as bipolar disease and schizophrenia.

Professor Cindy Ehlers was awarded a $3.6 million MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Award grant by the NIH to study the risk factors for alcoholism in Native Americans.

Professor Joel Gottesfeld and Assistant Professor Kristin Baldwin were awarded California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) grants of $1.75 million each to fund projects working with stem cells.

Assistant Professor Michael Petrascheck and Assistant Professor Brian Paegel won prestigious NIH Director's New Innovator Awards, designed to “catalyze giant leaps forward for any area of biomedical research, allowing investigators to go in entirely new directions”; each recipient receives $1.5 million in research funding over five years.

In addition to federal and state agencies, many other groups contributed to our research funding during the past months, including the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Scripps Korea Antibody Institute, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Ellison Medical Foundation, American Cancer Society, Fidelity Bioscience Foundation, Cystinosis Research Foundation, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and the American Heart Association.

Generous Donations

We are also grateful for all our donors and their contributions to our cutting-edge research.  

In 2011, the Saul and Theresa Esman Foundation pledged $832,000 to fund a postdoctoral fellowship under the direction of Scripps Florida Professor Philip LoGrasso. When combined with prior gifts, Theresa Esman and the foundation have now contributed $1 million. 

Sally Stokes-Cole, a longtime annual supporter, created a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust naming Scripps Research as a beneficiary. Based on the payout of the trust, Scripps Research should receive an unrestricted gift of about $519,000.

Arnold and Arlene Goldstein of New York made a generous $400,000 pledge to support the next generation of transthyretin cardiac amyloidosis drugs. The commitment has been designated to Sandra Encalada, who holds the newly created Arlene and Arnold Goldstein Assistant Professorship. The Goldsteins had previously given $1.5 million to support the development of transthyretin cardiac amyloidosis drugs through the launch of Assistant Professor Luke Wiseman’s lab.

The Helen and Richard DeVos Foundation made a $300,000 pledge to the graduate education program in Florida to be used for scholarships for incoming students, prizes for outstanding work, travel for international candidates, attendance at scientific conferences, personal computer technology, and guest lectures with successful CEOs. This is the second gift from Helen DeVos and Scripps Florida Council member Rich DeVos through their foundation, following a $100,000 previous donation. 

Mike and Alice Volechenisky established a charitable gift annuity of $310,000 to support Scripps Research, bringing their total gifts to the institute to more than $1 million.

Long-time Scripps Research supporter Helen Dorris continued her contributions toward the Dorris Neuroscience Center at Scripps Research with an additional $300,000 gift through the Harold L. Dorris Neuroscience Foundation. Research at the Dorris Neuroscience Center deepens our understanding of the nervous system and sets the stage for breakthroughs in the treatment of neurological diseases.

Additional Highlights

Also this year, the institute’s Kellogg School of Science and Technology was reaccredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges for 10 years—the maximum period possible. After the three-year review process, the decision was a vote of confidence for the program, which is ranked among the top 10 graduate programs in the nation for its fields of study, chemistry and biology.

In another distinction for the institute, in March the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Benlysta®—the first new drug treatment for lupus in 50 years. The scientific advances that lay the foundation for the new drug took place in my lab and I am deeply gratified that our scientific findings have proven so valuable to drug discovery. This development underlines the importance of basic academic science in laying important groundwork for life-saving medical advances.

Also underlining the importance of basic research for medical advances was the approval of Vyndaqel® (tafamidis)—a drug discovered in the Kelly lab—by the European Medicines Agency for the treatment of an inherited and ultimately fatal protein misfolding disease, familial amyloid polyneuropathy associated with transthyretin aggregation (TTR-FAP).

Thank You

Since I became president of the institute 25 years ago, I have seen The Scripps Research Institute grow and flourish into the scientific and educational powerhouse it is today. The institute's remarkable accomplishments during this time were made possible by the dedication of many individuals—donors, trustees, faculty, technicians, postdoctoral fellows, students, and staff. When I look back at my own achievements, my greatest discoveries have been the people who have shared their knowledge, resources, and talents with the institute. Thank you.

While I am coming to the end of my term as president of the institute, I look forward to continuing my work as a scientist, colleague, and enthusiastic supporter of The Scripps Research Institute. I am confident that the institute will be in good hands under the leadership of Michael Marletta come the New Year, and I anticipate celebrating many more of its achievements in the years to come.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and rewarding 2012 and beyond!


Richard A. Lerner

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President Richard Lerner sends his thanks to the many people who have made the institute's remarkable achievements possible. (Photo by Kevin Fung.)